Buddy, can you spare a dime

Pyschological skill key to panhandling success

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My assignment: pose as a pan-handler at five pre-selected locations and report back on the most lucrative street corners in the city. Needless to say, the proceeds would end up with a worthy charity, not as a bonus for this poseur. Alas, I failed in my assignment. Standing in the freezing cold for hours, I made almost nothing.

I learned something interesting last Saturday. I learned that although I have years of experience in busking and street performance, I haven’t got what it takes to be a panhandler. I am no good at it. I tried for hours and got nothing but a sense of hopelessness veering toward a peculiar kind of unfocused anger.

***I’m standing at the corner of Queen and Yonge with a small crowd. It’s 15 days before Christmas. A Saturday. A shopping day. Three days before the first big snowfall that has the media moving the homeless story to the top of the news.

I observe a man sitting on a sleeping bag panhandling out of a baseball cap. His crude cardboard sign says he’s homeless.

A streetcar comes and goes. I let it go by, then another. I watch the scene changing for 15 minutes, and during that time he nets no more than 35 cents. The strongest interaction he has is with a woman bearing a bag of doughnuts. He quietly and politely declines to take one. She persists, insisting they are good, but his refusal continues awkwardly until he stops looking at her and she goes away.

A streetcar slowly approaches. As I look at it, I find myself overhearing a pair of young women, 13 or 14 years old, well dressed, smart-looking. “It’s not like this is Bosnia. If anybody wants a job, they can find one,” and they both glance beneath themselves at the panhandler.

It’s not that they have any reason to be threatened by this man sitting on a sleeping bag. They can’t imagine or understand his story, what brought him there, who he was ­– but they are prepared to assume certain things.

The friend agrees, and they bond on the topic as I lose interest. No doubt, no question, no hesitation in their contempt.

I continue watching the man. When he talks, he talks to himself, but mostly he is silent. His body language is entirely passive. The only thing he is allowing himself to do as people come and go ­– and it is an interesting strategy ­– is to stare them in the eye and move his mouth as though asking a question they can’t hear. It’s not doing him much good.

***On Front East, I hang around the LCBO near Market Street, impressed by the continuous stream of intelligence and wit, the quick humour and charm coming out of an old guy panhandling among the people busy shopping. Sometimes he sits, sometimes stands, sometimes acts like some unofficial greeter.

Financially, he’s not doing much better than the man at Queen and Yonge, but at least he’s enjoying himself and making people reflect positively. An extempore actor with a wry comment and a smile.

Watching him, I realize that he has not only a depth of character but also a depth of resource that empowers him. There is no way he could be depending on these passersby for his survival on the edge. Easy, unembittered humour is not a credible element of desperation.

***Cold, I walk over to the Eaton Centre and observe a decent-looking elderly woman in a red hat carrying a sign saying, “Help me, I can’t pay bills or my rent.” She holds out an uncovered Tupperware dish. I watch her for an extraordinary 10 minutes before she goes away. During this time, this sad but dignified character, merely standing, presenting her misery to the crowd, collects a remarkable hourly wage in her simple container.

As she goes away, she turns her sign over, covers her dish and walks through the doors to the Eaton Centre women’s washroom. Moments later, she emerges, her dish emptied now except for two pennies, a nickel and a quarter. She resumes her post.

Her eyes express nothing short of redemption. Almost all of her benefactors are women who give a loonie or two, except for one man who pours in $7 and change in one quick gesture.

***Choosing a location is more complex than the actual fishing for funds. Which place is out of bounds, which is useless, which is an infringement on somebody’s turf? Expect zero tolerance for transgressing a boundary. You need high traffic flow, where people do not feel themselves pushed along with the crowd. A calm just outside a narrows, where there is a moment available for reflection and collection.

Presentation is pure theatre/sales psyche/job interview all rolled into one. But unlike most experiences, you have no more than a split second to connect or fail. You need a credible hook or angle that scans as quickly as a logo and offers more to the giver than the giver ever gives.

The sheer primate dynamics are overwhelming ­– assume the role of the powerless, accept the stigma of being an outcast, and then use only your eyes or your humour. Turn it upside down for a minor remittance. Control them from inside their hearts for a moment, and then let them go.

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